cast: Lynn Redgrave, Malcolm Storry, Frederick Treves, and Jay Simpson
director: Ross Devenish
93 minutes (15) 1989
Eureka DVD Region 2
review by Jonathan McCalmont
Death Of A Son
Originally screened by the BBC as a part of its long-running and much-lamented ‘Screen Two’ strand, Death Of A Son is a dramatisation of the life of Pauline Williams, a mother who responded to the drug-related death of her son by waging a tireless campaign to have the man who sold her son the drugs prosecuted for manslaughter. A worthy subject for a drama you may think. It’s kind of like Erin Brockovich (2000), but with fewer push-up bras, and more fags and council estates. But, despite the presence of Lynn Redgrave, Death Of A Son constitutes a reminder of precisely why it is that television programming like Screen Two disappeared: this is poorly written, poorly directed and poorly acted meretricious tosh of the highest order. It is utterly wretched.
John Williams (Jay Simpson) is a happy and well-adjusted teenager. Though his family are poor, they all get along brilliantly, enjoying an altogether idyllic working class existence. Then Williams turns up dead. It turns out that, despite being wonderfully happy, well adjusted and part of a loving family, Williams decided to give intravenous drug use a try, which resulted in his promptly dropping dead. However, in spite of there being evidence to suggest that Williams died as a result of taking drugs, the Department of Public Prosecutions decides not to press charges against Williams’ dealer.
Outraged by the news, Williams’ grieving mother Pauline (Redgrave) takes it upon herself to look into the case. Despite having left school at 14, Pauline pushes herself onwards and learns enough about the law and the drug that killed her son to attract the attention of a few experts,
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including Dr Patrick Toseland (Frederick Treves), the man who advised the DPP that there was insufficient grounds for thinking that Williams died of an overdose.
Indeed, Pauline has not just been teaching herself the law and toxicology, she has also been reaching out to drug users in the local community and she quickly realises that, while the tests performed on the drug to determine its safety limits focussed upon orally ingested quantities of the drug, Williams took the drug intravenously, thereby completely changing the rate of chemical absorption. Of course, Pauline does not get everything her own way. As she presses on with her investigation she has to put up with marital strife, backlash from local dealers and a Director of Public Prosecutions who does not like to admit that he has made a mistake. Obviously, though, she wins out in the end.
Narratively speaking, Death Of A Son is predictable and poorly paced. There is never any doubt that Pauline will succeed, and Tony Marchant’s script steadfastly refuses to stop long enough to smell the roses and explore the details of Pauline’s life in a way that might add depth to the character or conflict to the drama. She’s working class and sympathetic! They’re posh and complacent! They’re going dahn! It’s as simple as that.
Given so little to work with, Redgrave struggles to find much humanity in the relentlessly noble and selfless Pauline Williams resulting in an oddly affected performance full of howling, smoking and terrible accents. The standard of the acting is further reduced by the fact that the supporting characters are usually nothing more than empty ciphers serving only to provide Pauline with sources of anguish or frustration. This lack of narrative depth takes on a hilariously Hammer-esque form when a painfully under-written ‘angry drug dealer’ plotline climaxes with the arrival of a dodgy-looking bloke in a black suit and sunglasses who mumbles “yer hurtin’ da trade!” before slashing at an under-emoting Redgrave with a Stanley knife.
With so little going on dramatically, Death Of A Son was always going to need some inspired direction to make it in any way palatable. Sadly, Ross Devenish was manifestly not up to the job, as Death Of A Son is very much a part of the grand sweeping tradition of grimy kitchen sink dramas that monopolised British culture from the 1950s onwards. Indeed, back in the 1950s, ‘angry young men’ such as John Osborne and Harold Pinter shocked the establishment, and revived the British theatre, by writing about the private lives of the working class. However, by the end of the 1980s, this once vibrant and challenging theatrical tradition had become an oppressive and totalitarian doctrine that did little else than patronise and alienate poor people.
Death Of A Son is nothing much to look at. It is grimy, ugly, and weighted down with one of the worst scores I have ever heard on a TV programme. Death Of A Son is not just a terrible film, it is one of the nails in the coffin of serious British televised drama. It is simply awful, but at least it contains the text from the original BBC press pack as a DVD extra. Hurrah!